Over the past week, thousands of high school students in western New York have gathered for unique celebrations during the pandemic to reflect on the past 4 years.
But for one man on Grand Island, walking across the stage was 75 years in the making and created a touching moment with his grandson that brought on my many cheers and a few tears.
“I’m so lucky to have a great father and an outstanding son,” said Jeff Richard, the son of Warren and father of Ben.
This journey for Warren Richard, 93, started many years ago. Warren never finished high school, leaving western New York in 1945 to fight in World War II.
“I was only 18 so you know, an 18-year-old kid going off on your own. It’s pretty scary and was lonely and you miss people, you know. Especially, when you came home on furlough and then you had to go back. It was pretty emotional,” explained Warren.
Years later, memories of the war are permanently painted in his mind.
As a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne, Warren was one of the first American soldiers to occupy Japan after the country surrendered.
“Being away from home, walking in the middle of the night in below zero temperatures on Christmas Eve, things like that. It was good times too with companionship and buddies and stuff,” he said.
News 4 sat down with Warren a few days before his high school graduation.
He told us he returned after the war to finish his GED, but he never received his prized high school diploma.
Back in that day, Grand Island High School didn’t even exist. He took classes at McKinley High School before he was drafted.
Warren’s able to receive his diploma from Grand Island thanks to New York’s ‘Operation Recognition’ program, which allows vets, who left high school early, to graduate. Even in his 90s, he’s still looking to the future.
“I got to get that on my resumes in case I want a job,” he joked.
We asked Warren what kind of job he might look for.
“One where I can sit down,” he laughed.
In all seriousness, he’s grateful for the opportunity. As they say, age is just a number.
“I’m the oldest person I guess to graduate from Grand Island High School… it’s an honor,” Warren said.
For Warren, it’s an honor all the sweeter. His youngest grandson, Ben, shared the spotlight with him, but it almost didn’t happen.
Ben is lucky to be alive today. He was a passenger in a car crash that happened in May. His injuries are life altering.
“I’m hoping to hug him… but with the pandemic I guess I can’t do that,” Warren explained through his tears, “It’s tough knowing that he’s in the condition he’s in and he still doesn’t have any feeling in his legs so what does the future hold? We don’t know. It’s disturbing not knowing what it’s going to be like.”
However, just like his grandfather when he fought for our freedom 75 years ago, Ben doesn’t show any fear of the unknown.
“I still have some things on my bucket list that I want to get done,” Ben Richard said.
Sunday was Ben’s first time out of the hospital since May 9. He was only allowed out for four hours. He said it’s nerve racking and painful to sit up in his wheelchair, but he’s pushing through.
Despite the pain, Ben is thankful to share this day with his hero.
“He’s been a big role model my whole life. He’s always been there for me, baseball games and all sorts of stuff. So it’s kind of great that we can do this,” Ben said.
Their journeys may be separated by decades and vast life experiences, but they both share something similar: determination.
They’ve overcome adversity — during war, injury and a pandemic — to get here.
For the two, it’s a moment frozen in time, signifying accomplishment.
Warren, the wise warrior, shares an important message.
“If you haven’t finished school go back and do it because it’s your future and you need a good education to survive in this world,” he said.
Warren said with that, perseverance and a little love, you can survive anything.
Ben still has a long road to recovery. You can help contribute to his medical expenses here.
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